What Is Cholesterol?

What is cholesterol, and can you have high cholesterol even if you consider yourself healthy? Learning what causes high cholesterol is the first step to cholesterol management. Learn everything you need to know about managing your cholesterol levels here.

9 minute read

Last Updated July 6, 2020

Cholesterol Levels - Heart Guide - 1MD

Cholesterol is a lipid that your liver naturally produces. It is essential for the formation of vitamin D, certain hormones, and cell membranes.

Cholesterol is insoluble, so it travels through the blood by connecting with liver-made lipoproteins. These carry cholesterol through your blood and are either low-density (LDL) or high-density (HDL). Too much LDL cholesterol in your blood means your cholesterol level is high, and this can lead to many serious health problems. 

What Causes High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol can be caused by eating too many foods that are high in cholesterol trans fats, or saturated fats. Knowing what foods are high in cholesterol can help you plan a better diet and improve cholesterol levels. 

Other lifestyle factors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, can also contribute to the development of high cholesterol. There is a small role that genetics plays in how your body processes cholesterol, so if your parents have high cholesterol, you are more at risk too. 

High Cholesterol Symptoms

High cholesterol is generally a silent condition, which means there are little to no symptoms. Most people do not even realize they have the condition until a more serious complication develops, such as a stroke or heart attack. Since there are no symptoms, the only way to detect high cholesterol levels is with regular screenings, and these should start after the age of 20.

High Cholesterol Diagnosis

A simple blood test is performed to test your blood cholesterol levels known as a lipid panel. This test helps to assess total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. A sample of your blood will be sent to a lab for processing, and the results will be provided to your doctor. In preparation for this test, you will likely have to avoid eating and drinking for 12 hours beforehand. 

Treatment for High Cholesterol

Medication can be prescribed to lower cholesterol levels. Statins are the most common type of medication, and they work by blocking the liver from producing more cholesterol. Additional medications that may be used include bile acid sequestrants and cholesterol absorption inhibitors. 

Many times doctors will prescribe a combination of medications depending on how high your cholesterol levels are. 

Low Cholesterol Diet

Eating large amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, and sugar can raise your cholesterol levels. There are several important diet tips you should incorporate to help reduce your cholesterol and risk of heart disease.

Eat more soluble fiber: Soluble fiber absorbs bile, which is produced by the liver to digest fats. More fiber means the liver needs to make more bile, so bile pulls cholesterol from the blood to do this, thereby lowering cholesterol levels. 

Fruits and vegetables: Eating more fruits and vegetables is an easy way to lower cholesterol, as they contain numerous powerful antioxidants that prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing and forming plaques. 

Herbs and spices: Herbs and spices are packed with minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that effectively fight cholesterol. Turmeric and ginger are proven to lower cholesterol when eaten regularly. 

Eat more soy: Soy is rich in proteins and isoflavones, which are plant-based compounds similar to estrogen in structure. These proteins and isoflavones lower cholesterol as part of a regular diet. It is important to remember that less processed forms of soy will be more effective. 

Drink green tea: Green tea is rich in antioxidants that prevent LDL from oxidizing and forming plaques. Studies have found that after drinking green tea for two weeks, cholesterol levels are significantly reduced.

How to Reduce Cholesterol

Dietary changes are the most effective way to lower cholesterol naturally. In addition to that, there are a few other options you can try to lower HDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of serious heart complications.

Exercise

Regular physical activity is one of the best ways to take care of your heart. You improve physical fitness, fight obesity, strengthen your cardiovascular system, and reduce LDL cholesterol levels. The best exercise includes a variety of aerobic activity, stretching, and strength training. 

Lose Weight

Exercise can help you lose weight, and this is important because obesity is strongly linked to high cholesterol among other unhealthy conditions. Weight loss diets and programs have been found to increase cholesterol absorption and decrease the creation of new cholesterol. 

Don’t Smoke

Smoking changes the way your body processes and handles cholesterol, and this increases your risk of heart disease. Immune cells in a smoker’s body are unable to return cholesterol to the blood for transport to the liver. This damage is caused by tobacco tar and contributes to faster clogging of arteries. Giving up smoking can begin reversing the effects almost right away.

Help from Plants

Plant sterols and stanols are nature’s version of cholesterol, and because they resemble cholesterol, they can be absorbed the same way. The difference is that these supplements have different chemistry and do not contribute to clogged arteries. They help you reach healthy cholesterol levels by competing with the human version. 

These plant compounds can be found naturally in vegetable oils.

Supplements

There are a few supplements that have been proven to be effective at lowering cholesterol. 

Fish oil is full of omega-3 fatty acids that work to reduce the amount of fat being carried in the blood.

♦ Coenzyme Q10 is a food chemical that helps cells to produce energy, and studies have found that this compound reduces total cholesterol levels, and it is also beneficial at treating heart failure.

♦ Psyllium is a type of soluble fiber that you can take as a supplement, and it works to reduce both LDL and total cholesterol levels in the blood. 

What Are the Variations of Cholesterol?

LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is the “bad” cholesterol that can collect in your arteries and form waxy deposits known as plaques. Over time these plaques clog and damage your arteries increasing your risk for heart disease and a stroke

HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is the “good” type that transports cholesterol out of your arteries to your liver. It is then removed from the body, thus preventing the formation of any plaques in the arteries.

Triglycerides are also lipids, but they are different from cholesterol. Triglycerides are used as an energy source rather than a building resource. The trouble with triglycerides is that too many in your fat cells can travel through the blood via lipoproteins, and at elevated levels, these too can increase your risk for heart disease.

High Cholesterol Statistics

♦ 95 million adults over the age of 20 are estimated to have high cholesterol.
♦ 7% of children and teenagers aged 6 to 19 have high cholesterol.
♦ Your risk for heart disease doubles when you have high cholesterol.
♦ African American adults are more likely to have high cholesterol than Caucasian races.

What Is the Long-Term Outlook?

High cholesterol is a serious problem if left untreated. It can even lead to death. With treatment, you can manage this condition successfully and reduce your risk for more serious problems. 

If you think you are at risk for high cholesterol, ask your doctor to test you, or start getting annual screenings. Once diagnosed, you can begin treatment, and the earlier you start, the more effective it will be. You can also lower your risk for high cholesterol by eating a balanced diet, exercising, and avoiding tobacco.